TWO recent news items caught my eye. The first reported that it’s 50 years since BP announced the scale and potential of its Forties Field. The second, a survey by property company Zoopla, suggested that Aberdeen workers have more disposable income than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. 

As an Aberdeen loon, I vividly recall oil’s impact. The North Sea was a technological and engineering triumph, achieved at great financial and human cost. Aberdeen and the lives of many of its people were transformed; but the full story is a tale of two cities. 

For many locals and incomers, Aberdeen represented a black gold El Dorado. Salaries rocketed and silly money frittered on corporate jollies. For those on the outside, things were not so rosy. Teachers, nurses and police officers struggled to afford inflated property prices. Modest homes went for thousands over the asking price. For most of the 1970s and 80s I taught in schools in less favoured parts of the city and witnessed the widening gulf between the haves and the have nots. 

And what of the impact on the fabric of the city? In 1995, American writer Bill Bryson declared he, “couldn’t find anything remotely adorable about Aberdeen”. Bad news Bill, things have got worse. Local and national governments were unwilling to push back against the arrogance of the oil lobby. An early casualty was the old fishing community of Torry, flattened to make way for North Sea service bases. Historically important Fittie, narrowly avoided a similar fate. Thankfully, now protected, it will remain an attraction and earner long after the oil industry is a fading memory.  

Aberdeen is unique amongst the so called “oil capitals” of the world.  In contrast to its counterparts, it has become ever seedier and run down. A casual observer could justly ask where is the legacy of the past 50 years. That lack of vision illustrated by the failure to showcase two of the city’s gems, Marischal College and Provost Skene’s House. Both drowned for the next 50 years in a sea of featureless glass and concrete. The Zoopla survey suggests a legacy of high wages, but there is another legacy.

Local charity CFINE distributes 1,500 emergency food parcels each week. 2,500 city children are registered for free school meals and 8,500 Aberdonians claim unemployment-related benefits. Unlike Norway, successive prodigal governments neglected to engage the oil giants in planning a legacy to benefit everyone, not just those in the industry. The legacy was frittered away on short-term priorities.  As the famous 1990s bumper sticker put it, “Dear God, if there’s another oil boom, let’s not p**s it away again.”